Posted by: mariabro | February 29, 2012

Following up on 3/11

For ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki, March 11, 2011, began like any other day. After drinking some tea with his wife at their home in the town of Mashiko, in Tochigi Prefecture, he set about preparing for an exhibition of his work in Britain in the summer. In fact, he had already shipped many of his pieces to England—a fortuitous action for which he would soon be thankful.

He was in his house that afternoon when the shelves, filled with his hand-crafted pottery, started rattling. He and his wife rushed to hold the sturdy wooden cupboards steady as the rocking and swaying became more violent. As they ran outside to safety, the jagged sound of smashing ceramics pierced the still air.

When the ground finally stopped shifting, the brick climbing kilns Matsuzaki had used for 30 years to fire his highly regarded ash-glazed works were destroyed. That special relationship with his kilns, developed over many fervid, labor-intensive days, was reduced to rubble.

With his Koizumi-like, thick gray hair, the 62-year-old son of a painter explains that while he also lost his creative style and art that day, he sees an opportunity from the destruction. “It’s no use trying to make the same [works] as I did before,” he says, sitting at his dining table on a chilly January afternoon. “It is an opportunity to try something new.”

Across town, gallery owner Kazumi Otsuka was setting up 300 pieces of pottery for an exhibition that Friday afternoon last March. As the earthquake began to jolt the shelves, he and his staff tried in vain to stop the pieces from falling. Outside, a crowd of shopkeepers gathered on the undulating road and listened to the cacophony of crashing earthenware. Returning to his gallery, Otsuka found around 70 percent of his pottery in pieces.

Mangokuura Elementary School lies east of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture, and around two kilometers from Ishinomaki Bay. That early spring day, American Taylor Anderson was teaching at the school, sharing her enthusiasm for reading with her students.

“I feel she had a real love for the students,” says the principal of the school, Kazuo Aizawa. A colleague of Taylor’s, Rie Abe, agrees. “She had a passion for teaching English,” she says.

Anderson, a 24-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, had been working as an English teacher on the JET program since 2008. According to her coworkers, after the earthquake struck, Anderson helped to evacuate the students from the school and then waited for parents to pick up their children. It was a cold and snowy day, but she decided to cycle back to her apartment. Soon after, the tsunami warning sirens started to wail.

Jeanne and Andy Anderson awoke to the news that a tsunami had hit Hawaii. Jeanne immediately thought about her daughter, who she knew was planning a vacation to the Pacific islands two days later. But when she discovered that the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake had struck off Japan’s Tohoku coast, she ran upstairs to her husband and together they began frantically trying to reach Taylor.

It would be 10 days before the news that every parent fears came. Taylor was the first confirmed American victim of the earthquake and tsunami. “It was a 10-day, 24/7 search for Taylor,” explains Andy Anderson in a video chat interview. “It felt like war. It’s nothing you’d ever wish for anyone to go through.”

Shortly afterwards, the Anderson family established the Taylor Anderson Memorial Gift Fund. “Taylor loved the people of Japan, the country, how grateful they are for the little things in life,” Jeanne Anderson says.

“We set up the fund and chose projects with an eye to what Taylor would have wanted to do,” Andy explains. “We want to help schools, students and families and pinpoint exactly where they need help most. In the longer term, we are committed to scholarships and exchange programs.”

As the full extent of the disaster along Japan’s northeastern coastline was revealed, former Women’s Group President Barbara Hancock sat down with a number of other Members, including Miki Ohyama, Ginger Griggs, Elaine Williams and Najia Malik, to talk about how the Club could help those in need.

A relief fund was immediately set up and the Club became a hub for donations of necessities like clothes and food. Club Member Scott McCaskie, who is managing director of the moving company Allied Pickfords Japan, says that his team delivered goods worth around $1 million. “Allied went to TAC on a daily basis to pick up the items and send them to different locations in Tohoku,” he says. “Seventeen two-ton truckloads were finally delivered.”

In May, the Club hosted Jammin’ for Japan, a fundraising evening of musical entertainment. The event, which featured the likes of American hip-hop artist Speech and opera singer John Ken Nuzzo, contributed greatly to the Club’s fundraising efforts and the final tally of ¥16 million. (A follow-up event, with an opera and fashion theme, is set for next month.)

Hancock and her committee then had to decide how to distribute the funds. After donating smaller portions to charities like the Tyler Foundation, Tokyo English Life Line (TELL), All Hands Japan and the Konishiki Kids Foundation, Hancock says the committee selected three main projects: two in Tohoku and one in Mashiko, a town that the Women’s Group runs a popular tour to each year.

“The final three projects were selected from the research that we did and research that other organizations like ACCJ [American Chamber of Commerce in Japan] had done,” she says. “The committee also took into account organizations that our Members are involved with and that the Women’s Group has a special relationship with.”

Of the remaining money, ¥4 million was donated to a project in memory of Taylor Anderson, called Taylor’s Corners. Each of the seven schools in Ishinomaki where the young American taught will have a Taylor’s Corner, a library section that will house a collection of English and Japanese children’s books.

“Taylor devoured books,” says Taylor’s mother, Jeanne. “She loved reading to the kids. Her first toys were books. When she was young, for a punishment, I would take away her library card.”

“We read to our kids every night,” Andy says with a smile. “It was one of my favorite times.”

Located on the upper floor of Mangokuura Elementary School, the first Taylor’s Corner library, with its foam-tiled floor, has evolved into a cozy spot. Sunlight streams in through the windows one weekday lunchtime in early February, as children smile shyly and try out new English words.

The reading corner, whose shelves are stocked with about 60 books, was built by Shinichi Endo, 42, a local carpenter who lost his three children in the tsunami. Two of his children were taught by Taylor at another elementary school.

Endo, who says he thought about Taylor’s bright and cheerful personality while making the shelves, attended a dedication ceremony together with Taylor’s family in early September. Hancock, Ohyama and Griggs were also there.

“It was wonderful to see the first Taylor’s Corner come to fruition and to be there with her family and all those connected with her,” says Hancock. “It was a very moving ceremony and, I thought, a positive step in moving forward for all of those who had experienced great personal loss in the tsunami. The funds donated will have a direct, positive impact now and in the future, and this is exactly what our TAC Members wanted.”

Ahead of the trip to Ishinomaki, Ohyama says that she was apprehensive about how emotional it might be to meet the Anderson family. “However, rather than being emotional, I was encouraged by the energetic children whom Taylor actually taught,” she says. “I felt that Taylor’s spirit [lived on] in the children.”

Children in the city of Fukushima have also benefited from the generosity of Members. Another ¥4 million was donated to help repair and replace damaged school facilities and equipment, including musical instruments.

According to Masahiro Sato, a former city council member and the coordinator of the project, with the new instruments, the three recipient junior high schools will be able to compete in regional music competitions. A win, he adds, would be a huge boost for the community.

“Parents in the region are very sensitive to the radiation issue and largely limit the outdoor activities of the children,” Sato says. “Today, it is improving but we still have many hurdles to overcome.”

The Tochigi town of Mashiko faces challenges, too, but the Club’s donation of ¥3.7 million is helping its pottery industry recover.

“The economy of Mashiko has not yet recovered completely, if compared with what it was before the 11th of March,” says gallery owner Otsuka. “However, it is getting better very slowly. The number of visitors to Mashiko is increasing in small steps, but the entire Mashiko business result is still very severe.”

From its humble beginnings in the mid-19th century, Mashiko grew into one of Japan’s preeminent ceramic centers, attracting more than 500,000 visitors to its spring pottery festivals and about 200,000 to the fall festivals. The likes of Otsuka, though, fear that the town may only draw around half those numbers this year.

The damage to Mashiko’s livelihood was severe. All of the 50 climbing kilns were destroyed and Otsuka estimates that pottery worth around ¥800 million was lost that day. About 20 percent of the climbing kilns have been rebuilt, and the Club’s contribution is being used to reconstruct the special salt climbing kiln, which gives pieces a particular glaze.

Since the majority of the area’s gas- and electric-powered kilns are still working, local artisans can continue to create and craft—a testament to the resilience of the community, says Otsuka.

“It is not about the individual,” he says. “Each owner wants to help Mashiko become strong. The pottery world has grown tighter and we want to rebuild together.”

The award-winning artisan Matsuzaki says that the hundreds of e-mails of support he received from around the world and the arrival of volunteers in Mashiko to help clean up after the quake motivated him to move forward.

And that’s exactly what he’s doing. His works and those of four other Mashiko potters are on display at the Club’s Frederick Harris Gallery until March 25.

Bromley is a Tokyo-based freelance journalist.

Published in March 2012 issue of InTouch

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